Last year the coolest game on earth was put on ice because of a strike. That didn’t stop hockey games from being released last year though. This year the NHL is back in full swing, and so are the hockey games.
While EA has their NHL 06 and 2K Sports has their NHL 2K6, the PlayStation 2 gets extra competition for the ice with Sony’s Gretzky NHL ’06. Let’s find out if this game deserves the name of the Great One in its title.
The characters look well enough, and their bit-mapped faces look fairly realistic. However, the polygon count is low for the characters when you get a close-up shot of them, for example during a replay or a reaction to a play on the ice. A few nice touches do add to the graphics though. When starting each period, the ice is clear, but further in the period tracks from the skates are shown in the ice. Ice flakes fly up when players suddenly stop on the ice. The puck causes the net to move when a goal is scored. Shadows of the players do show up on the ice, but they are faint and they aren’t reflective. The animation isn’t great, but it gets the job done decently enough. There are occasional clipping issues, however.
The ice rinks do look authentic, with light logos of the teams shown before the game starts. The four-sided scoreboard shows stats and the score. Advertisements around the rink are easily seen. When a goal is scored for the home team, camera flashes abound throughout the crowd. The crowd does look a bit flat, however, and the animation of the crowd when they stand up and sit down is rather stiff.
Often the biggest challenge for a sports game is getting the commentary right. For the most part, Gretzky gets it right. The commentators give a delivery that is smooth and for the most part keeps up with the action. A little more color commentary would be nice though, as it seems to be a one-man show for a good portion of the game.
On the ice, Gretzky sounds good, with sticks hitting the puck and body slams giving a good boost of bass. The skates hitting the ice are more prominent during a fast break than when all the players are at one side of the ice performing more defensive moves. The horn of a goal is unmistakable.
The cheering could be more pronounced after big plays, as well as during the game. The crowd sounds are there, but they don’t really add anything to the game. You hear cheering and booing, but no distinguishable yelling or grumbling.
Trying to explain the controls in Gretzky a tricky task, because every button is used and has multiple functions depending on the situation. The strategy used by the team is determined by the D-pad. Movement is controlled with the left analog stick. Checking is done with Square and Triangle, Circle shoots the puck, and X passes the puck or changes the player you control. L1 and R1 make your player go faster. R2 toggles the skating direction of your player, and L2 enables icon passing. Select does a line change.
As you can probably guess, the controls are a bit confusing. It takes a while to get used to the controls, and even then, the controls never feel very intuitive. The manual even has a misprint in it for the body check. (It’s marked as left on the D-pad instead of Square.) There is a tutorial similar to last year’s game, but it is just a video featuring Wayne Gretzky telling you how to play the game using the controller. Unfortunately, Wayne Gretzky doesn’t appear to be as charismatic on video as he was on the ice. His monotone voice makes it painfully difficult to get through all of the tutorial videos. It would have been nice to have some type of interactive tutorial or mini-games to help get a better feel for the controls. This was a complaint of mine last year, and it’s disappointing to see no major improvements made in this area. Other sports games implement an interactive tutorial, so why can’t Gretzky?
Gretzky has several modes of play. Quick Start has the CPU select two teams and has you play on one team. Single Game is similar to Quick Start except that it lets you select which teams to play. Franchise lets you play several seasons, dealing with the draft, retiring players, contract negotiations, and free agency. Rivalry mode has you play against a single team for a series to see who wins the rivalry. Tournament mode lets you set up a 4, 8, or 16-player tournament for the Stanley Cup in NHL fashion or in a World Cup pool-play style. Practice lets you set challenges to practice your skills however you want. Online play is also available through broadband.
The most unique mode is the Wayne vs. Wayne mode. During this game, you earn “99 Time” by playing as a team, scoring goals, delivering big checks, and making saves. Your “99 Time” can also be decreased by poor play. Once you reach enough “99 Time” points, you can call out Wayne Gretzky to the field as a sixth man. Your team gets physical bonuses as well. This is a fun arcade mode for friendly games.
One of the faults of last year’s Gretzky was the fast that the players didn’t seem to move fast enough, especially during a fast break. This year’s version definitely gives the players a real sense of speed. Unfortunately, it might be that now they are too fast. The players are able to change direction on a dime without any sense of momentum.
Where the game really fails is the passing game. In last year’s version, it was difficult to know where your teammates were and where you could pass to. This has been remedied by the icon passing scheme. While this assists in the direction to pass, the computer has an uncanny ability to be able to steal the puck. Not only that, but your teammates seem to be inept at getting the puck from a pass, so the passing game seems to be off a lot. The CPU team seems to be able to pass with ease, making any type of defense a challenge.
During the game, you can earn “Gretzky Points” by performing actions like scoring 5 goals in a game, performing 10 big hits, or winning 10 face offs. These will enable you to unlock items in the Gretzky Challenge. Unfortunately, most of these are alternative uniforms, but a few fun ones like the Big Heads are available.While Gretzky does include a franchise mode, it doesn’t run as deep as other sports games. There are many modes to play, but they are only as fun as the game on the ice. With such disappointing play on the ice and mostly worthless unlockables, it won’t be long until you decide to pop the game out of the console.